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The Long History of Accidental Laboratory Releases of Potential Pandemic Pathogens Is Being Ignored In the COVID-19 Media Coverage
by Sam Husseini
Many people are dismissing the possibility that the COVID-19 pandemic might have come from a lab. It is possible that they are unaware of the frequency of biohazards escaping from laboratories.
On Feb. 11, I asked Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s Principal Deputy Director, at the National Press Club if it were a “complete coincidence” that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus happened in Wuhan, a center of China’s declared biowarfare/biodefence capacity. I got an answer that was remarkably evasive. She wouldn’t answer my followup question about whether the claimed “zoonotic origin” precluded the outbreak from being caused by pathogens from nature that then could be accidentally leaked from the labs.
But neither are the facts always being provided to the public. A search on “Democracy Now” shows that the first time the program mentioned “Wuhan” and “lab” or “laboratory” was on April 6 — to credit “the Wuhan lab that identified the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.” Mainstream outlets at least reported the existence of the lab to their audiences in a somewhat timely manner, even if they distorted the information.
And skew the information they did.
Forbes (3/17/20) published the piece “No, COVID-19 Coronavirus Was Not Bioengineered. Here’s The Research That Debunks That Idea,” which depends on a misreading of a strange and misleading Nature Medicine article to dismiss the notion that it came out of a lab. The Forbes senior contributor on health, Bruce Y. Lee wrote: “it’s a lot easier to leak a pocket of air though your butt than a virus from a BSL-4 facility.” Apparently this was supposed to be reassuring.
Similarly CNN (4/6/20) mocked the notion of a lab leak when re-assessing the source of the pandemic, describing one possibility being that: “It leaked — like a genie out of a bottle — from a lab in an accident.”
But even a cursory look at the record shows that these labs, where ever they exist, have a lot of accidents — just from 2019, the New York Times (8/5/19) reported: “Deadly Germ Research Is Shut Down at Army Lab Over Safety Concerns”, an article about Fort Detrick in Maryland: “Problems with disposal of dangerous materials led the government to suspend research at the military’s leading biodefense center.” (The local paper, the Frederick News-Post has provided some coverage, including publishing letters by local activist Barry Kissin.)
USA Today had a reporter on this beat, Alison Young, but she left the paper. A sampling of her work:
“Hundreds of bioterror lab mishaps cloaked in secrecy” (8/17/14)
“Worker at Tulane possibly exposed to bioterror bacteria” (3/11/15)
“CDC failed to disclose lab incidents with bioterror pathogens to Congress” (6/23/16):
“GAO finds more gaps in oversight of bioterror germs studied in U.S.”:
“Government regulators have no idea how often laboratories working with some of the world’s most dangerous viruses and bacteria are failing to fully kill vials of specimens before sending them to other researchers who lack critical gear to protect them against infection, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.” (9/21/16)
“Congress demands details of secret CDC lab incidents revealed by USA TODAY” (1/17/17)
Even since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Nature reported: “Chinese institutes investigate pathogen outbreaks in lab workers.” (12/17/19)
Then, on April 16, “Democracy Now” interviewed Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance. Daszak is an interested party. He has worked with and helped fund the coronavirus experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He dismissed the prospect of lab release outright. The episode was headlined: “’Pure Baloney’: Zoologist Debunks Trump’s COVID-19 Origin Theory, Explains Animal-Human Transmission.”
Listeners to “Democracy Now” were not given elementary facts about the history of lab accidents. They were also not told that among the policy advisors for EcoHealth Alliance are David Franz, a former commander at Fort Detrick, the principle U.S. government biowarfare/biodefence facility and Thomas Geisbert, who is doing biodefence/biowarfare work at Galveston National Laboratory. EcoHealth Alliance partners include universities but also major corporations like Johnson & Johnson and Colgate Palmolive. Most importantly the EcoHealth Alliance has worked with USAID to fund dangerous collaborative work between scientists in the U.S. and in Wuhan.
According to Daszak they are simply trying to defend against pandemics. This requires collecting and even creating dangerous pathogens for the stated purpose of defending against them.
But, to Richard Ebright of Rutgers University, an eminent scientist and one of the few who scrutinize the well-funded biodefense/biowarfare networks, this is all incredibly dangerous:. Ebright calls it “Not ‘vaccine research.’ Not research that provides information useful for preventing or combatting outbreaks. Just reckless pseudo-scientific Indiana-Jones adventurism with high risk of infection of collector, and from there, infection of public.” He also charges that collecting thousands of such viruses is the “Definition of insanity.”
Interestingly, even the researcher who Daszak’s group supports at the Wuhan Institute of Virology says that she was initially quite concerned that the lab was the source. Shi Zhengli was profiled by Scientific American, (March 11, 2020) “How China’s ‘Bat Woman’ Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus“: “If coronaviruses were the culprit, she remembers thinking, ‘could they have come from our lab?’ … Shi breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves. ‘That really took a load off my mind,’ she says. ‘I had not slept a wink for days.'”
She seems more self reflective than Daszak, but why should the world take her word? As Ebright at Rutgers states: “A denial is not a refutation.”
In fact, there is no doubt that Fox News Channel, Senator Tom Cotton, and others are clearly trying to demonize China and portray Chinese labs as uniquely dangerous. The liberal counter to this is that Chinese labs are great, like U.S. labs. Excluded from this “discussion” is the obvious truth: These labs are all dangerous and there is no meaningful distinction between biowarfare and biodefence. The U.S. has effectively spurred a bioweapons arms race, as documented by Francis Boyle in his Biowarfare and Terrorism (2005).
By not taking on the issue of biowarfare, the left is effectively turning it over to the prowar right which is weaponizing it against China. The better tack, surely, is to take a comprehensive approach to ensure a bioweapons arms race doesn’t continue to threaten humanity.
On Fox, Sen. Cotton stated that U.S. labs do work that is “in large part done for preventative purposes,” like “trying to discover vaccines.” In contrast, “China is obviously very secretive about what happens at the Wuhan laboratory.” (FNC 2/16/20) In fact, all countries who do this work are secretive. Much of the rightwing coverage in the U.S. on this issue has been led by the reporting of Bill Gertz in the Washington Times whose books include The China Threat: How the People’s Republic Targets America and, from 2019: Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China’s Drive for Global Supremacy.
Similarly, Josh Rogin’s reporting in the Washington Post, “State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses” emanates from self serving elements of the U.S. government.